This year, Merrick’s Levy Lakeside School formed a club that promoting a culture of acceptance for all students, and of volunteerism, service and fulfillment among its members.
Fifth- and sixth-graders have been invited to join the school’s Buddy Club. Since the club launched in March, more than 50 students have come forward to volunteer some recess time to spend with the school’s special-needs students. Students participate by interacting socially, playing tabletop games, puzzles, building with Legos, playing games outdoors or merely going for short walks. Buddy volunteers are also asked to demonstrate skills that the special-needs students can practice during lunch, recess or any other social opportunities throughout their day.
In the few months since its inception, the Buddy Club has proved to be a tremendous success. Every day the students with special needs wait anxiously for their buddies to show up. And their guests are having just as much fun.
“Buddies have seen the positive response on their new friends’ faces and always receive warm greetings,” said Joanne Savastano, who advises and oversees the program with Kaitlyn Maloney and Jen Meschkow. “For example, they may hear, ‘Are you here for me?’ upon entering the classroom. The patience and care that these young student volunteers have demonstrated is truly inspiring.”
Rachel Roslow’s son was diagnosed with autism at two years old. He is currently in second grade in a class of 12, and receives one-on-one support through the program, she said. Fifth and sixth-graders in the program hang out with the students and “model how you would be a friend,” Roslow said.
“He is more able to build friendships” as a result of this program, she said.
Before his participation in the buddy program, Roslow’s son had some difficulties. He struggled “socially and academically,” Roslow said. “He didn’t understand social cues.”
The program invokes a real sense of community among the participants, including the younger and older kids. According to Roslow, they engage in several activities — like basketball, or something as simple as taking a walk in the hall.
Things have changed for Roslow’s son since taking part in the program, which represents “an opportunity to accept differences and build relationships” — as well as an opportunity to make new friends.
Roslow recalled that in her son’s younger years, he was “very focused on what he was doing” and “didn’t welcome other kids into his life. Now, he will say ‘hi’ and ask to play”, said Roslow.
According to Savastano, the Buddy Club has also expanded the awareness of challenges for children with disabilities, including a March fundraiser for World Down Syndrome Day. The students made posters, distributed Down Syndrome Awareness bracelets and raised $715 for the Down Syndrome Advocacy Foundation. In April, for National Autism Awareness Month, the buddies again jumped into action by helping to make posters and spread the word to wear blue for autism awareness.
Buddies were asked to write on index cards some of the things they may have learned or felt about becoming a buddy. Some of the responses include “kids are just kids,” “kids are all special in their own way” and “I learned that some kids express their feelings differently.” Many students indicated they wish they could work with everyone who has difficult challenges.
“I was interested in helping out, so I joined. It’s a lot of fun,” said fifth-grade student buddy volunteer Corey, a regular participant who goes for walks with his buddies and has also encouraged one student to play soccer. “I really want my buddies to learn and have fun, just like everyone else.”
— Jackson Tarricone contributed to this story